Thursday, May 09, 2013

Mamluk Cairo's Street Eats

In her monumental study Food and Foodways of Medieval Cairenes, Paulina Lewicka calls attention to the fact that during the Mamluk period of the 14th and 15th centuries, travelers called attention to the fact that the people of Cairo generally did not cook at home, but ate prepared foods from market sellers and street vendors.  This foodway is an interesting lens into the role high politics and the environment can play in shaping everyday life.

Her account of the origins of this way of doing things begins in the 9th century during the days of the Tulunids, the first autonomous dynasty to rule Egypt since its conquest by the Roman Empire.  Cooks for the main harem palace produced surplus food which they then began selling at gate stands.  Another boost came from the fall of the Fatimid Dynasty in the 1170's, when a number of the palace cooks seem to have been tossed into the street and forced to go into business for themselves.  These two developments, and perhaps others, led to high quality food offerings being available to the general public, much the way the French Revolution led to the birth of a Parisian restaurant culture operated by former cooks to the nobility.

There was also an environmental factor in play.  Cooking requires fire, and fire required wood, yet Egypt had never been fully self-sufficient in that resource, and the Mamluk naval build-up led to the complete deforestation of the country.  (I've previously blogged about Egyptian wood issues here.)  Because wood was expensive, it was not economical for everyone to have their own hearths at home.

Even if you didn't buy the street food, people generally had the food they prepared cooked by special oven operators outside their home, who of course benefited from the same economies of scale in their wood purchases as the street vendors.  In fact, many in the upper middle classes preferred to prepare their own food because many of the food sellers took shortcuts in the quality of food they provided, as well as the standards of hygiene they were expected to maintain under Mamluk market regulations.

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